Saturday, March 31, 2018

The Day Protractors Took Over In Science

This year two big things happened in my science class that have fundamentally changed the way I teach. Tom and I went all in on a gamified classroom. We have leaderboards, power up, teams and a very loose narrative. Then in November, I was introduced to Peardeck, an interactive presentation program that I like so much that I will be presenting on it at USM Summer Spark conference in Milwaukee this summer.

As part of the game Tom and I run, students can earn Power Up cards. These are class rewards, incentives for amazing work in and out of the classroom. They allow kids to choose their seats, read with friends, listen to music during assignments and other things students love to do. Every unit we try to introduce a few new ones to keep class fresh and exciting. The results vary. Sometimes kids will use them, other times they save them because they like collecting them.

After Peardeck became a staple of our rooms, we decided to base a few cards around impacting how other groups would need to respond to questions in Peardeck. One card impacted how many words students could use to respond. That one is fun, especially since it includes a dice roll when played: instant suspense. Today, though, I want to share the story of Mr. Mxyzptlk (yeah, don’t ask me how to pronounce it either. I likely butcher it all the time). The character is a villain in the Superman comics who is known for trickery. When we designed the card, we wanted to make it have interesting and tricky results. Here is what we came up with:

The card has been played a couple times now. Once the student accidentally chose a word that worked out really easily for the group it was played on. The second time, well, it was blog worthy. The child raised his hand. “Mr. Renard, are there a lot of Peardeck questions today?”

I knew why he was asking, gave him a big smile and said, “Yep.”

He reached into his inventory (a 9 baseball card plastic page) and produced Mr. Mxyzptlk. “That group,” he said pointing at the next table over, “must use the word 'protractor' in each of their responses for this lesson.” There was some laughter around the room and a few nerves coming from the table that had been targeted. I explained that they were not allowed to just throw the word in at the end, but it needed to be used in a way that made sense. Here are some of the results.

Other examples included, ‘When looking at the sides of this canyon, we could use a protractor to measure the angles’ and ‘Rocks are hard to break down and it takes water a long time to do it. Not protractors though, they break if you step on them or bend them.’ Not all the answers worked as you can see. When the answer did not work, the player of the card was rewarded.

What really made this special was the way the other students got so excited to read what the target team wrote and how they worked 'protractor' into their responses. The lesson carried into a second day and one of the kids told me that he had thought about ways to use the word when he went home the night before. It never ceases to surprise me how little tweaks like this make my students more creative and excited. It can really take a normal day and make it memorable. I would encourage you to add a monkey wrench to something simple in your classroom and see what happens.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

When It Doesn't Go Well

Looking back on what I have written so far it would be easy to think that everything just works. However that is most certainly not true. Every great educational book that I have read talks about creative and innovative lessons that fall flat and I have had my fair share. So this is a small sub category that I am going to start called WIDGW, or When It Doesn’t Go Well. Here I am going to talk about the things that I am going to use again, but before I do I need to rework it a bit.

I am starting with what was one of my favorite new things this year that I totally miscalculated: A Scooby Doo Addition and Subtraction unit. It was my second unit here at my new school and I just didn’t feel like I was myself yet. Looking back at it now, my family and I were living with our in-laws, I had just launched a gamified science class, I was adjusting to a new school, state, and life. I probably should have taken everything lesson by lesson, but I dream big.

I looked at what was too come and I wanted to make something more out of what was a pretty straight forward set of lessons. I made a haunted house where the kids could see our progress from one lesson to the next. Then I created a deck of what I called ‘Zoinks’ cards. Each card was themed after a classic Scooby Doo monster from the old cartoon. During lessons we would pull cards and the cards would each have a fun effect. One might ask them to write every odd number in their sums and differences in green color pencil, another forced them to rewrite their answers in expanded form. I set up my lessons in a pretty simple way so that the game element would be the piece that made it fun.

The haunted mansion I drew for the unit.

For the first few lessons, it worked. The kids were enjoying the challenges. Some of them would act so dramatic when it was time to pull a card. They wanted to do it though. They all also wanted to be the ones who moved our marker to the next area of the haunted house. So, what went wrong? In a word: timing.

Do to some things that we did at the beginning of the year that are positive to do, we were about a week and half behind on our pacing guide. During this unit, I found out that a lot of teachers in our district combine concepts in this unit to make up some of that time. Additionally, because of the way I had designed some of the cards it was making students take longer to complete certain tasks, which in turn would cause us to draw out lessons into multiple days. This would mean that we wrapped up lessons early the next day before starting the next day. In that rushed feeling, I would forget to have someone advance the Scooby Gang to the next room. Between combining lessons and throwing in preparation for the final assessment my well laid plan totally feel apart around me.

An example of one of the cards.

In the end, the students did well with the material and we were where we needed to be in terms of content and pacing. However, Scooby and the gang did not make it through the mansion. Also, despite the excitement that it generated, we only got about two thirds of the way through our Zoinks cards. A few of the kids asked why we stopped with the different pieces and I told them that I was sorry that it didn’t work out.

If I am being honest, the hardest part about innovation in the classroom is usually balancing time and pacing. This is especially true in math, where pacing guides loom like the forbidding legendary ghost of a pirate captain which is actually just a millionaire who is trying to scare off well meaning teachers with aspersions to make things awesome.

It is possible to do exciting and engaging lessons, it just takes work, planning and time. Scooby and the gang will rise again next year if I am teaching math. They will be more equipped to get through a renovated haunted house. The villains will be lurking in the shadows to complicate matters. Kids will probably be pretty excited excited again. For right now though, this all finds itself in an article subtitled: When It Doesn’t Go Well.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

5 Things as We Turn to March

So, here are five things that I thought about or that happened this week. Most of which had to do with school.

1. It was group picture week. This may be my favorite school based picture ever. Complete with photobomb by the photographer.

2. No matter the amount of work and effort you are putting into a fixed path, sometimes straying from it can lead to magic. Here’s to Ms. Burkhart.

3. Those moments you know that they are thinking of you. This week one student made me a Nintendo Switch out of modeling foam. Thursday I got a random hug from another on my way into school. Then on Friday a student informed me that he convinced his parents that he couldn’t leave for a trip a half hour early because we had a delay and he didn’t want to miss my class.

4. Boys are still weird and this girl’s drawing depicts it in the most accurate fashion possible.

5. As difficult as it can be to have my kids at my school at times, moments like sitting with my daughter in her new dress on picture day make it worth it.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Crossing Line For Learning

So, when I started teaching I had come fresh from college and being part of improv comedy. I slid right into a sage on the stage role. I joked for a while that I was my students favorite cartoon character. Then, thanks to an amazing battle axe of a math specialist, I realized the strength in self discovery, especially in math and I shifted to more of a coach and less of the know it all.

That brings me to this activity. Over the days leading up to this activity we had learned how to measure angles using a protractor. The next step in the state of Ohio (and most core states) is to find missing angles in intersecting lines. I ventured onto Pinterest (something my wife laughs at me about because I used to be resistant to it) and found a wonderful activity where you put masking tape on tables and have students measure the angles. It also works out nicely with our districts push for flexible furniture. My whiteboard tables were perfect. This was just what I needed to establish the rules of finding missing angles. A quick trip to Target and $6 later I had a colorful combination of intersecting lines.

The kids were interested the moment that they came in the door that day. A few of them were sad to find out that it was not for science as they go to another teacher for math. At the beginning of class we took a few minute to review using protractors. Then I explained what I wanted them to do.

As we started the activity, I moved from table to table watching the students measure the angles and I waited. One boy said it first, “Mr. Renard, when I measure…” I cut him off giving him a smile and saying, “Not yet. Just wait.” He smiled understanding. From another table, “Mr. Renard, when I measure the angles…” Again, I held out my hand with a reassuring smile to stop the girl from finishing her sentence. “Hold that thought.” A minute of two later, from a third table. “Hey, angles add up to 180.” I moved over and said, “Huh, cool. Be ready to share.”

Finally, a young lady at my last table called me over and said “Mr. Renard, this angle and this angle are the same.” That's what I was waiting for. I called for my classes attention and asked them to gather around the table. Choosing to allow this last student to share what she had discovered in order to build her confidence, I encouraged her to share what she found with the class. “The angles that are across from each other are the same.”

“How can they be the same? They are separate angles.” I said.

“I mean they are equal.” Wording matters to me.

Exaggerated look. “Huh! Well, how about that? Did anyone else find anything?”

Another student. “Yeah, angles along the lines add up to 180 degrees.”

I looked at the work of one of the student and got wide eyed, “What sorcery is this?! Anyone else?”

Another young man, “Yeah, all of the angles add up to 360 degrees.”

Me, “Everytime?”

Another student, “I think so.” I gave them time to confirm this and watched a student or two see the direction things were going and make some changes by of a couple of degrees. The students all agreed. We copied down these new ‘rules’ on the board and students went back to finish up. Once each group was done they began personal assignments, but I couldn’t have scripted that conversation any better.

Looking back on it, I am mostly happy with everything. My students are getting better and better with just doing the crazy things that we do in class. I am really encouraged by their willingness to share their thoughts, even if they might be wrong. One thing that I noted to do next time I try the activity is to maybe take pictures or if time let students compare by doing a round two. Though the more I think about it, the trickier I think it would be.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

The Lines of Dueling

Recently, in my math class we shifted gears. I realized that I was following a regiment that I was not comfortable with and as a result they were not meeting goals that I had for them. I adopted a very time specific format of content lesson, personal growth and performance task attack time. The goal is to challenge them on all fronts. That said, I realized if I was going to spend less time with the direct instruction, then my lesson time was going to have to be on point, engaging and all in.

After adopting a pirate theme for the class (more on that another time), I reworked my first two geometry lessons to teach point, line, segment, ray and angle using a treasure map. This though, was the one I was waiting for. My students need to learn about intersecting, parallel and perpendicular lines. To do this we practiced our swashbuckling before hitting the seven seas.

To begin, I modeled what parallel, perpendicular and intersecting lines looked and they made their own drawings. We made observations before defining of each one under their pictures. Then I told them, “As proper pirates, we never know what we will encounter, so we have to be handy with a blade. Savvy?” They are still adjusting to my pirate talk. I then passed out a yard/meter stick to each students. At first, they were confused and then came the smiles. They realized that I was planning to allow them to do what every child assumes is the true purpose of these measurement tools; use them as a sword.

Before starting, I gave strict warning that I had many fun activities planned, but if they could not handle this, then it would impact what we can and cannot do. I asked them to stand a find a partner and I joined the extra student. We put the tips of our blades on the ground and I explained that I would count to three. With each count they needed to tap blades with their partner. Then, I would shout parallel, perpendicular or intersecting. They would use their blades to match the command. It was all smiles.

We played four rounds switching partners each time. Each round it was fun to watch different combinations of kids work together as they tried to line up their “swords” in at exactly the right angles or make sure they were straight and never crossing. There was so much laughter and excitement as they waited for the next command. After our final round, I had students return to the page where we had defined the sets of lines and add doodles of people sword fighting using the lines they had already drawn as the swords.

They loved it. They were able to describe and draw the lines. They worked in partners to physically create the lines, collaborating so that they got them just right. It was a super great little lesson; memorable and active. Now, on to measuring angles by analyzing the x that marks the spot and rotations of Olympic snowboarders. I wonder if my principal would mind me constructing a halfpipe in the classroom? So many ideas, so little time.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

In the Battle of Heroes vs Villains

Existing with and inside of a curriculum can be difficult. Especially for someone who wants to innovate and push the envelope constantly. This year, our district adopted a new curriculum for science: Amplify. I have had ups and downs with curriculum, especially scripted curriculum. I will say that Amplify has been pretty cool. Best of all though, is it lends itself very well to gamification. The two seem to compliment each other.

At the the end of each chapter, the students have to write a scientific explanation or argument to respond to the chapter’s main question. In a gamified classroom this would typically be a boss battle, in which students answer questions correctly to defeat the “boss” (the test). Tom and I tried that out, calling the parts of the rubric, the bosses hit points. It never felt quite right though. Writing does not lend itself well to the boss battle concept. After some discussion we decided that for our final paper of unit two, we would try something different.

Our game is based on Superheroes, but at the beginning of the year we allowed the students to decide if they were a hero or a villain. It was a decision we had not emphasized to this point. During this unit the students took on the role of conservation biologist in order to save Tokay geckos in the rainforest who were dying. Over the course of the unit students learned that street lights had been installed in the area were making it hard for the geckos to see because of their high sensitivity light receptors.

Tom and I choose to emphasize their affiliations of heroics of villainy in their final explanations in order to foster both competition and unity. For the heroes, they would write the explanation as they would have before, but they also had to add a solution to save the geckos and still protect the drivers. The villains on the other hand would write their normal explanation, but need to include a plot to use what they had learned to push the geckos in the area into extinction. Each paper would graded on the same rubric. Then we would take all the heroes scores and all the villains scores and average them out. To the winning side: 200XP on the leaderboard.

There was palpable excitement in the room as we broke this down for the students. We explained it and shared our expectations. We told them that if they wanted to share their papers with others on their team to get feedback, they could. This practice encourages teamwork and support. We also asked that their plot not be things like throwing all the geckos into a volcano, or getting rid of the highway altogether. They went to town, and it was crazy, y’all. There was real feedback and support as both weaker writers reached out to ones that they knew could offer constructive criticism.

After grading them, the students wrote some really great papers. Many students making their best efforts of the year. In the end, my favorite part was the plots to save or get rid of the geckos. We had heroes that suggested using lights that would dim or brighten based on motion sensors and building walls around the highway to limit stray light. We had villains that suggested installing additional street lights in between the existing streetlights and cutting down some of the trees near the highway to maximize the reach of the light being generated. Of all 74 students, whose papers that I read, only one did not base their plot around the information we learned about light and vision. Our final averages were heroes with 8.9 and villains with 8.4. The craziest part was that in three of our five classes the villains actually won. It came down to one weak performing villain group that did not work together, to give the heroes the victory. Talk about a teachable moment in cooperation.

There were some tiny things I will change when (not if) we do it again. Like setting the room up with heroes on one side and villains on the other. Making sure Tom and I used the exact same rubric, we had a small difference in point breakdown. We may allow sides to use a power up that pulls players to their side through “mind control” or “redemption”.

That said this was a huge success. Students were motivated, helpful and encouraging to one another. My favorite part of all of it though, was kids coming up with solutions that focused on the information they had worked so hard to learn. That is our goal, right? To have them apply what they learn to solve problems. This put the students in a position to really consider how we make problems better or worse. This took a fairly straight forward explanation one step further and made them apply their knowledge, which is the best display of learning I could ask for. It was amazing.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Operation! I'm the Doctor for You!

Last year when working with order of operations, I had a fun idea to have the kids look problems that were wrong, and fix them. When setting it up I drew the large pictures of patients who were sleeping. On each one I placed an incorrect problem and had the kids move around the room and ‘fix the patient.’ This year, in fourth grade I don’t go as in depth with that concept. However, my students are getting their first go at both long division and multiple methods of double digit multiplication. So it seemed like a good time to pull this activity out of my pocket and put it into practice.

I set up six stations; three with long division mistakes and three with multiplication mistakes. For multiplication I opted to use both the standard algorithm and the box method. The mistakes I highlighted were the same mistakes I had seen from the students. The students that had displayed a good understanding of the process through exit tickets and class practice could move around freely as they diagnose each patient and complete the problems correctly. The few students who were still having troubles would work with me to complete the six problems first, and then they could match the work to the patient and figure out what they did wrong.

On the day of the activity I had students fold a piece of paper in half. One half of the paper was for their diagnosis and the other half was to complete the problem correctly. The free moving students worked very well moving from one station to the next. One or two of the problems stumped the students because the mistakes were tricky to notice. Every student got through at least five of the six students. Working with the students who had difficulties also seemed to go really well.

That said, we only had about 35 minutes to complete the activity. So I was not able to get through all of the equations with the students I was working with. Also, while I had time to go over the answers, I did not have enough time to go in depth with the mistakes in the problems each patient had. I have already noted to myself the need for a full class for this activity the next time.

What I like about this activity is that the classroom transformation immediately sets a tone that this will be different. Students usually rise to a different atmosphere. In a dream world they all get scrubs, clipboards and face masks. For a first effort in Ohio, this went pretty well.